Unlike what its title might indicate, Cake is not at all a sweet, fluffy, or otherwise enjoyable film. It’s downright miserable from start to finish, much like its protagonist, Claire (Jennifer Aniston). You don’t come away from Cake happy or smiling, but sad and contemplative. It’s a powerful movie about grief and pain, and features one of the best performances — and a very nice change of pace — for its leading lady.

Claire has chronic back pain and pops pills in order to deal with it. She’s got scars all over her body, and has to attend support groups and physical therapy. The reason is initially hidden from us, only revealed midway through the film. A woman in her support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has recently committed suicide. Claire often thinks about doing the same thing, so she finds herself fascinated by Nina. Aided by her live-in nurse/housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), she winds up trying to figure out everything about Nina — all while being haunted by her ghost. Or maybe it’s just a hallucination caused by the pain and the tonic of alcohol and pain pills she has every day. I’m thinking probably the latter.

The film is ultimately about Claire overcoming the mental and physical barriers that are preventing her from making even a partial recovery. She became this way six months ago and has made no progress. She struggles to even get pills now, since she should no longer need them. Does she even want to get better? Why is she so miserable all the time? As Cake plays out, we find out the answers to these questions.

Cake touches on issues that aren’t particularly easy to digest. Depression, suicide, chronic pain, guilt, grief — none of that is particularly fun to discuss. I can see lots of people being turned off by how unhappy a lot of Cake is. Maybe the title is misleading; maybe it’s intentionally that way. Maybe the filmmakers want to draw you in with the promise of a sweet movie starring Jennifer Aniston and then show you a realistic portrait of an unhappy individual in order to make a stronger impact.

It’s quite the emotional story. Claire isn’t exactly a likable person, but since we grow to understand her during the course of this character study, that doesn’t really become an issue. She’s interesting enough and is never boring to watch, either. If nothing else, she always does something that’s worth watching. Sometimes you see the kindness in her, and you hope that she’ll be able to permanently find that side of her once more. Whatever trauma she suffered is keeping her from that.

A good chunk of the film’s success comes from Jennifer Aniston in the leading role. Stripped of any sort of glamour, she turns in the best performance she’s had in years — and maybe of her entire career. She’s heartbreaking and absolutely fantastic. It’s a nice change of pace and will hopefully serve as a corner being turned for Aniston. She’s truly wonderful in Cake, and while this type of role isn’t an “every movie” type of thing, it’s nice to see that this is a place she can take us.

Meanwhile, Adriana Barraza, who plays a nurse/housekeeper is up to the task of keeping up with Aniston. It’s a very important supporting role and Barraza does a wonderful job in it. There are a couple of somewhat distracting cameos from actors you’ll recognize like William H. Macy and Lucy Punch scattered throughout; they play important roles but it’s distracting to see them show up for a single scene and then leave.

How good is Cake? Sam Worthington is in this movie, and he’s genuinely good! That might be the biggest surprise that it has to offer. All of its acting is good, with Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza being the standouts, but for a serious drama like this one, it’s a pleasant surprise to see Sam Worthington not ruin it. Meanwhile, the film gets to hit on some heavy themes, become emotionally involving, and work as an impactful character study. Cake is an effective movie from start to finish and well worth your time, assuming of course that you can handle its not-so-sweet themes and characters.

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